In this blog, I have spoken fondly and frequently of my time spent volunteering as a tour guide at the Burrell Collection. My main reason for volunteering was to overcome my fear of public speaking. The Burrell is one of my favourite museums, containing a fascinating range of medieval artefacts, and I felt that it would be the best vehicle for my volunteering as I already had a good medieval knowledge base. I was able to put my knowledge to good use, and was also able to learn a great deal more about medieval art, as well as art across time up to the nineteenth century. This volunteer role, which I held for two years, also brought some unexpected benefits in addition to improving my public speaking skills and increasing my confidence. I got to know various curators, benefiting from their knowledge, and had I not moved to London for my current job, would have volunteered for cataloguing and research work on the Burrell Tapestries Research Project. I gained valuable experience and training in various aspects of art history which helped to secure me my first librarian role in the History of Art Department at Glasgow University.Since moving to London, I have continued to do volunteer work. In 2010, I spent almost every weekend between May and July acting as a steward at the Lambeth Palace Library 400th Anniversary exhibition The Treasures of Lambeth Palace Library. My main reason for applying for this role was to get myself known at Lambeth Palace Library, with a view to developing my career in rare book librarianship. I also wanted to continue developing my public speaking and presentation skills. It was a great opportunity, and I even had the chance to use my Old French and Latin skills one day to translate a page of La Danse Macabre for an exhibition visitor. It was also a valuable lesson in the creation, maintenance and administration of a rare books exhibition. Although I have not yet been able to volunteer at other Lambeth Palace Library exhibitions, because of my other commitments, I have volunteered my writing skills and time to write two book reviews for the Medieval Dress and Textile Society (MEDATS) newsletter. My first review, in May 2010, looked at Fashion and Armour in Renaissance Europe: Proud Looks and Brave Attire, by Dr Angus Patterson (London: V&A Publishing, 2009),Senior Curator of European base metals, arms and armour at the Victoria and Albert Museum. The second will be published in January 2013, and focuses on volume 8 of Medieval Clothing and Textiles, eds. Robin Netherton and Gale R. Owen-Crocker (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2012). I was not sure at first whether or not to count this as voluntary work, but ultimately concluded that, because these reviews help others decide whether or not the book is for them, I am giving my time to help ease their decision-making process. Like the majority of volunteer work, it is of course not entirely selfless and altruistic. I love to write; I am interested in the themes of these books; I want to make myself known to people working in the fields covered by these books.
My experiences of volunteering have been, mostly, good. For three years or so, I was social secretary and then secretary, as well as newsletter editor, for a sports club of which I was a member until last October. I enjoyed that voluntary work, and I was good at it; I masterminded the redesign of the club’s logo and colours, which were then used on the website and newsletters. I created a mailing list for the transmission of club-related news and set up a noticeboard for club nights, to make sure that information got out to all members one way or another, to name just a few of my projects. Unfortunately, I decided to leave these roles because I felt that it was impossible to do all that I wanted to do without the support, and better organisation, of more senior committee members. Volunteering to be on a committee, to run any kind of club, doesn’t work if some people do not pull their weight and try to make things happen. In one respect then, it was a frustrating few years, but in another, I gained a lot of confidence and experience in event planning, general administration, networking, and information sharing, all of which are transferable skills that I will use in my future career.
I have been thinking about volunteering to work in a Special Collections Library to develop my practical knowledge of such an environment and its collections. The official CPD23 Thing 22 post defines volunteering thus: “I strongly believe that volunteering should be a mutually beneficial arrangement. In exchange for their time and commitment, employers should provide volunteers with opportunities to gain valuable work experience and develop their skills”. I have good experience of handling rare books through my librarianship practice and research, and good knowledge of the history of the book through my research, so I could bring a lot to the role. But as I already have a job, this is of course rather complicated to fit into my schedule. Most immediately, then, I will continue to work with our own very small rare books collection, and look at using my training and skills to develop and publicise these books as part of my daily role as a librarian.
For all that I believe that volunteering is valuable, even essential, I would never take any voluntary role that tries to replace or has any repercussions for paid professionals. David Cameron’s Big Society is a dangerous and insidious way to deprofessionalise, if not destroy, several crucial public services, including, of course, libraries. The declared aims of the Big Society are as follows:
Community empowerment: giving local councils and neighbourhoods more power to take decisions and shape their area. Our planning reforms lead by DCLG, will replace the old top-down planning system with real power for neighbourhoods to decide the future of their area.
Opening up public services: our public service reforms will enable charities, social enterprises, private companies and employee-owned mutuals to compete to offer people high quality services. The welfare to work programme, lead by the Department for Work and Pensions will enable a wide range of organisations to help get Britain off welfare and into work.
Social action: encouraging and enabling people to play a more active part in society. National Citizen Service, Community Organisers and Community First will encourage people to get involved in their communities.
When it comes to libraries, what this really means is that the Government has absolved themselves of any responsibility for this key part of society’s infrastructure, and will not intervene to stop councils from closing libraries. A library run by volunteers, however enthusiastic and well-meaning, is not a proper library anymore. It is a room, or a building, filled with books. The BBC gives an alternative, even more accurate, definition: “a book-lending service in a library”. Volunteers should supplement and support paid professionals, rather than replace them; this was the model used at Lambeth Palace Library in its Treasures exhibition as discussed above. What happens when volunteers replace librarians? A more general volunteering sector report, No longer a voluntary sector, produced by the Third Sector Research Centre, found that
There seems to be a shift in type of volunteering people do i.e. shift toward more episodic, one –off volunteering e.g. ‘fun run’.
If we add these findings to the shocking fall in borrowing figures in the Lewisham libraries which Lewisham Council transferred to the ownership of computer recycling firm Eco, in the case of three libraries, of Age Exchange, in the case of Blackheath Library, and of local volunteers, in the case of New Cross Library:
Borrowing figures for October 2011 show Grove Park community library making just 722 loans during that month this year compared to 3,764 in October 2010, a drop of 81% on its previous year’s total. New Cross library saw just 458 issues this October compared with 2,770 in October last year; Sydenham library totalled 1,326 loans this October compared with 4,035 in the same month last year. Crofton Park library saw the best result, lending 2,836 times this October, down 53% on its total of 6,036 in October 2010. Blackheath Village library saw the worst result, lending just 572 books in October this year, down 89% on the previous October’s total of 5,044.
Source: ‘Catastrophic plunge in lending at Lewisham’s libraries’, by Benedicte Page, The Bookseller, 6 December 2011.
I am now looking for the figures for this year, to see what changes there have been. Unfortunately, I don’t believe that there will have been any improvement; it seems more likely that book lending figures will have continued to decline.
If you want to help libraries survive, volunteering may not be the best way to go. I recommend reading the most recent post on Infoism, Do library occupations help campaigners, or the government?. You should insist on there being professional librarians in place to properly develop the space and the collections, to the best advantage of the library users. Support librarians as librarians have supported you.